Architecture porn, dive tiki bars, and the best Mexican food around.
More than 200 neighborhoods make up the fabric that is the city of Detroit. Downtown and the ones immediately surrounding it, such as Midtown to the north or Corktown to the west, are booming. Then there are more stable neighborhoods where the residents stayed put, refusing to let their communities fall into decline. There are neighborhoods that hit rock bottom and are still struggling. Then there are neighborhoods that are undergoing rapid change.
Southwest Detroit, namely Hubbard Farms, is one of those facing rapid change, but it has also shown signs of resistance. If you drive down Vernor Highway, you’ll see shiny new storefronts amid boarded-up ones. You’ll see hipster joints such as El Club, a music venue that hosts local musical acts, pop-up restaurants, and DJ nights such as Punk Sabbath. You’ll see new residents and residents who never left from all walks of life: urban farmers, millennials, and generations of Mexican families. There are neighborhood staples such as Mexicantown Bakery, where the tres leche cake is some of the best around. Like most other Detroit neighborhoods, Southwest Detroit was a victim of the financial meltdown of 2008, but as people get priced out of Midtown and Corktown, its proximity makes it primed for gentrification.
And you can already see it based on the skyrocketing house prices; the median price is around US$60,000 yet houses are being listed—and snapped up—at around US$300,000. That’s a lot of money for a house in Detroit.
Part of what makes the neighborhood so attractive is the rich history. Originally the land was a village and burial ground of the local Pottawatomie tribe. In the 1700s, the French colonized the area and the land was split into five ribbon farms along the Detroit River. The district is named after Bela Hubbard, a geologist for the state of Michigan and then later developer of the district.
In the early 1920s, Mexican families, drawn to the plentiful jobs in the auto industry and Henry Ford’s US$5-a-day wage as well as the growing industrial base, started settling in Detroit, first around downtown Detroit and then farther southwest. Southwest Detroit itself is a large area that comprises several different neighborhoods, and Hubbard Farms is just one of them. It’s a historic district bounded by Clark Street, West Lafayette Street, West Grand Boulevard, and West Vernor Highway.
Start your walking tour in the neighborhood’s community gathering spot, Clark Park. In the 1990s, it was one of the parks shut down by the financially strapped city, but a resident stepped up to save it. Now run by a nonprofit volunteer coalition, it plays host to annual barbecues, soccer tournaments, and winter carnivals and is home to the last outdoor regulation ice skating and hockey rink in the city. It’s the perfect spot to relax and people watch.
Head down to Vernor for lunch. Southwest Detroit is also known as Mexicantown. For a real Southwest Detroit original, head to Armando’s Mexican Restaurant for a botana, which is like nachos but better: Armando’s version is heaps of beans, chorizo, and muenster cheese piled on top of corn chips and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, green pepper, onions, and jalapenos. Taco trucks such as El Parian specialize in traditional tacos on corn tortillas, your choice of meat, and topped with cilantro, lime, and onion. If you have more of an appetite, follow your nose to Taqueria El Rey. They have tacos, burritos, even a shrimp burger, but you come here for the grilled or barbecue chicken.
Not craving Mexican (although you should try to fit it in at some point because the Mexican food here is the best around)? There’s pizza, from the longtime Amicci’s Pizza to the newer PizzaPlex. The community-focused pizzeria specializes in Neapolitan pies and is perfect for grabbing a cup of espresso—or a Negroni—while reading a book or rocking out at karaoke.
With a full belly, it’s time to check out the neighborhood’s architecture, which spans from the 1870s to the early 20th century. Italianate, Victorian, Romanesque, Beaux Arts, and Colonial Revival homes line the leafy streets of Vinewood and Hubbard, and they have been maintained and preserved over the years. At the end of Hubbard is the infamous Yorba Hotel, which was immortalized in a song by the Detroit-bred rockers The White Stripes, and was once a temporary home for workers who built the Ambassador Bridge. Some other buildings in the neighborhood have fallen into disrepair, such as the YMCA Western Branch, the once glorious Spanish Romanesque four-story building now just a shell. Not all buildings have fallen by the wayside; at 4138 W. Vernor Hwy., a bank building that once housed the Wayne County and Home Savings Bank and Peoples Wayne County Bank is now home to La Sed, Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, a nonprofit that serves the Hispanic community in Southwest Detroit.
For dinner, make a reservation at Flowers of Vietnam, a former pop-up turned permanent in a coney island (that’s diner for those not familiar with Detroit restaurant lingo) where chef George Azar, who worked stints in restaurants in Chicago and Las Vegas before coming back home, dishes up his meticulous interpretation of Vietnamese food such as pho, whole fried fish, and Vietnamese egg cream coffee.
For a nightcap, there’s the Mutiny Bar, a “dive tiki bar,” just down the street. For a classic Detroit dive, travel just a couple miles to Abick’s, Detroit’s oldest continuously operating family-run bar. The neighborhood itself has undergone many changes over the years, but Abick’s has stayed true to its roots, much like many of the residents who continue to call Southwest Detroit home through good times and bad.